Hayao Miyazaki fans no longer believed it. The Journey of Shuna (Shuna no Tabi), a work published forty years ago in Japan, was finally published on November 1 in France, in an enlarged format and in colors faithful to the original watercolors. Somewhere between the illustrated short story and the manga, this 160-page album was unpublished outside of Japan before 2022. A masterstroke for its French publisher Sarbacane. With 75,000 copies printed, this is the largest print run of the publishing house, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. “For us, it’s totally unusual,” assures general manager and BD director Frédéric Lavabre.
For Sarbacane, it all starts in October 2022 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest in the world in the publishing field. “We saw the American version of Shuna released on the networks,” recalls Frédéric Lavabre. My publisher Max de Radiguès, who deals with youth and comics, alerted me. It was a book that everyone knew a little about, but which was a kind of Arlesian since it came out in 1983.”
Why on earth did The Journey of Shuna remain unpublished outside of Japan for almost four decades? Mystery... What is certain is that Alex Dudok de Wit unblocked the situation with Ghibli, the production studio for Miyazaki's films, whose Tokuma Shoten holding company publishes the artist's books. Son of Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit (The Red Turtle), this French-speaking Briton wrote a work on Tomb of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata (at Akileos) and then came into contact with Ghibli. In 2020, Alex Dudok de Wit discovered Shuna no Tabi and it was a favorite: “I asked Ghibli why this book had never been published abroad and – I said that almost as a joke –, if I could be the translator, he remembers. I asked the question a little naively, telling myself that it was dead, but they ended up saying OK.” His name now appears on the American cover as translator.
Discovering the American translation, Frédéric Lavabre was “sincerely attracted” and therefore tried to obtain the rights for France. It involves putting together a file “completely blind”, with the complicity of the agent Sylvain Coissard, who had already enabled First Second to publish the book in the United States (more than 100,000 copies sold and a prestigious Eisner Award).
In France, “a good dozen” publishing houses are trying their luck with the Japanese rights holder. “Ghibli had been quite firm on the fact that they did not want a manga publisher to publish the book,” explains the agent. They did not want the book to come out in the middle of a catalog of hundreds of titles, which a priori excluded Glénat [publisher of Miyazaki's Nausicaä, Editor's note], Pika and others, whose very good offers were rejected. »
“What we highlighted in our presentation were the links between Miyazaki's universe and our own concerns: the ecological dimension, social struggles, the sense of beauty... We also cited some examples of books that we published, for example Moi j'attends by Serge Bloch, translated in Japan,” says Frédéric Lavabre. The director of Sarbacane sought to anticipate the author's expectations. “While Miyazaki no longer expects anything in terms of recognition, what could make him choose this or that house? It had to make sense to him, so I didn't put too much emphasis on the financial dimension and I tried not to show off, not to promise the moon... I had to be sincere while showing that we were able to disseminate it well: we had a solid and reassuring dimension on the group side [after the takeover by Madrigall in 2020, Editor's note] and editorial independence with values.
After three weeks, a trio of finalists emerged. Each editor must review their copy, without benefiting from Ghibli's instructions (that would be too simple). The boss of Sarbacane increases his financial offer and decides to talk more about the book, rather than Miyazaki. A Franco-Japanese friend advises him to limit “somewhat fiery tirades”. You have to “find energy, desire, but not too much either,” says Frédéric Lavabre.
In January 2023, Sarbacane learned that she had been chosen. Sylvain Coissard has since received a brief explanation from the Japanese. “We have the impression that Sarbacane are people who look like us, people with an independence of mind, off the highways, we feel good with them rather than with a big group.”
Negotiated after France, other foreign translations curiously appeared in advance: the German in September, the Italian and the Spanish during October. Coincidentally with the calendar, Le Voyage de Shuna was published in French on November 1, the day of the release of Hayao Miyazaki's twelfth feature film, The Boy and the Heron. A helping hand from destiny? “I realized how much expectation there was, the booksellers are completely crazy,” says Frédéric Lavabre. At the beginning, it was a bit like a game but today, there is a form of responsibility. Miyazaki, everyone knows him and everyone loves him!”